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Culture

People Who Make the World Better… and Worse

The first Morning Jolt of the week, coming to you live and direct from the Koch network winter meeting in Indian Wells, California…

The Best News You Will Read All Day… and Then Maybe Some of the Worst

The good news is there are good people in this world, dedicated to making it better.

You may know Dean Kamen as the inventor of the Segway – as well as the drug infusion pump, a wheelchair that can climb stairs, and the “Luke” prosthetic arm.

Kamen was at the Koch Seminar Network’s winter meeting, showcasing his Slingshot water purification device. He noted that most efforts to bring clean water to poor, isolated communities eventually run into technical problems. Chlorine pills can prevent infectious diseases, but if the locals use too many or too few, they’ll get sick anyway. Testing water requires specialized skills and equipment. Kamen concluded that the world needed the simplest system possible: a box with two hoses – put bad water in, get good water out. 

The Slingshot boils water and then collects the pollutant-free condensation – but unlike other water purifiers, it collects the heat and then recycles it back to continue the boiling, a closed circuit of energy. Kamen said the Slingshot uses less power than a hair dryer and can produce 1,000 liters of clean water a day – enough for a village. It’s already been used in Ghana, South Africa, Paraguay and Dominica.

Dr. Ian Tong is part of the Doctors on Demand company/service, which lets patients download an app, set up an account, and then set up a live video chat with a doctor. There’s usually a three-minute wait. The patient types in or uses the voice-transcription software to describe their symptoms or ailment, listing their current medication, allergies, or other conditions. From there the doctor can refer them to a hospital or clinic if needed; the app also directs users to nearby pharmacies. The cost is $49 for a fifteen minute consultation; they’re already taking insurance from United Healthcare, Humana, some Blue Cross Blue Shield plans. The service already has more a million registered users.

Then there’s e-NABLE, a project where volunteers who own 3-D printers – the kind you can buy at Home Depot – and use them to create parts for artificial hands, assemble them, and send them to children with upper limb injuries. The previously-existing artificial limbs are expensive and difficult for children; the ones from e-NABLE look like part of a superhero. Children who need them go from feeling different to feeling awesome. The network estimates that it has delivered about 1,800 artificial limbs for children.

Catherine and Charles Hoke founded Defy Ventures, a nonprofit that goes into prisons and teaches incarcerated men, women and youth key business and entrepreneurial skills. Participants in their program have a 3.2 percent recidivism rate over the past five years, and a 95 percent employment rate. (Nationally, about 76 percent of convicted criminals are arrested for another offense within five years.)

The program trains the incarcerated on everything from the basics of running a business, to full Emily Post etiquette training, to tying a necktie, to using LinkedIn. Participants in the program take the tests for a Baylor University MBA certificate. They have a passage rate close to 100 percent – partially because of desire and drive, and partially because there’s not a lot else to do in prison but study. The Koch network’s new arm focusing on social capital, Stand Together, has given an unspecified but “generous” grant to Defy Ventures, and the Hokes met with additional potential donors at the Koch network’s winter meeting.

The bad news is that some of these efforts — greatness in human form — are seen as controversial in some circles; sometimes this is because the efforts are driven by private enterprise and charity instead of the government, and sometimes it’s simply because of the connection to the Koch brothers.

The state of Arkansas only allowed telemedicine last year. In Texas, the state medical board only wants telemedicine used when there is a previously-existing doctor-patient relationship. Tong said the state’s wary perspective “has put a lot of fear in many doctors.”

As you probably know, the Koch network is seen as Public Enemy Number One by the progressive Left. Back in 2014, Kamala Harris, then-California attorney general, now a U.S. senator, demanded the names and addresses of anyone who had donated more than $5,000 to the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. No crime was alleged and all of the group’s filings with the IRS were in order. Americans for Prosperity strongly suspected that Harris’ office would leak the list and subject their donors to harassment from leftist groups.

Last year a District Court judge ruled against Harris; she appealed to circuit court.

Security at the Koch winter meetings feels just short of the kind you would expect at a presidential event. Every event organizer and staffer was as polite and pleasant as could be, but offered those slightly-ominous, first-act-of-a-thriller foreshadowing warnings to not wander off and to always wear my media badge at all times. Maybe that’s why the conference is in a desert; if I break the rules, they could just drive me out to the middle of nowhere and leave me there.

The New Republic had a decent piece pointing out that the allegedly oh-so-sinister Koch network is effective because it doesn’t just focus on winning elections and it doesn’t just focus on Washington. The piece quotes Jane Mayer’s Dark Money book:

“The first phase required an ‘investment’ in intellectuals whose ideas would serve as the ‘raw products.’ The second required an investment in think tanks that would turn the ideas into marketable policies. And the third phase required the subsidization of ‘citizens’ groups that would, along with ‘special interests’ pressure elected officials to implement the policies. It was in essence a libertarian production line, waiting only to be bought, assembled and switched on.”

If you use the verbal equivalent of the scary lighting used in that photo shoot of John McCain for The Atlantic in 2008, then yes, this all sounds terribly sinister. Shift the lighting a little, and all the Kochs are doing is effective activism. They have a set of values – freedom, independence, private community-based efforts and personal charity – and they’ve used their considerable fortune to set up a lot of venues to promote those values.

The only real difference between the Koch brothers and Tom Steyer or George Soros is that the Koch brothers are better at achieving their goals, and particularly better at getting the team around them to focus on the long-term and easily-overlooked corners of the governing process – i.e., state legislatures, local tax initiatives and the political races that aren’t “sexy.”

Above: Charles Koch. Don’t hate the playa, hate the game.

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